Your organization's content marketing strategy relies on your team's ability to develop awesome thought leadership content.
Unfortunately, becoming a “thought leader” is so sought after by enterprises great and small that the original meaning has become diluted over time.
Thought leadership helps build your audience’s trust in your expertise, but this is an effect rather than a cause. “Doing thought leadership” isn’t simply about providing high quality products or services; it's about bringing your industry to a higher level of thinking about the strategic problems it faces.
Individuals and businesses alike can aspire to thought leadership, but it all starts with a clear understanding of the term itself. A true thought leader is influential not only because of how he or she does things but also in their ability to explain why a certain approach is better.
Thought leadership content, too, is a bit more complex than simply delivering something good.
Ideally, all the content a company posts and shares should be good – after all, it’s all a reflection of your brand’s voice and values.
However, thought leadership content does more heavy lifting, It aspires to win business and to drive change.
Thought Leadership Content: A (Series of) Marathons, Not a Sprint
Thought leadership content should not only go a step beyond your regular content. It should also be treated as something of an “event” in your enterprise.
Larger content teams with robust, mature processes may even have writers, researchers, and designers solely for this content.
The advantage here is that thought leadership content, which takes more time and resources, could run on a parallel track alongside your regular content – which usually comes out weekly.
Even if you have a smaller, more focused team, however, you can still succeed in thought leadership. To do it, though, you’ll need to adjust your planning and production process.
Follow these six steps to set your team up to create awesome thought leadership content.
1. Decide What Your Angle Is.
The average piece of content is focused on the needs, questions, or problems of your buyer persona. The content connects with prospects or current customers by helping them with a very specific issue they’re researching or confronting in the moment.
Thought leadership content is different: It speaks to an entire way of doing things.
Your audience for this content may be your industry peers, decision makers at major enterprises, the press, or even the academic community.
However, it will not usually deal with one practical, immediate problem. Instead, it is part of a broader industry conversation.
That means you need to start with a strong position on a meaningful, relevant topic.
Your “angle” can be simple. You can take a stand against a common assumption that plagues your industry. You can string together a number of positions and make predictions about the future. Or you can explicate upon an area of strength by providing new perspectives on it.
Host ideation sessions to brainstorm with your team. These sessions bring everyone together and help you hone in on an important topic that aligns with parts of your content marketing strategy, like the keywords you targeted in your SEO strategy.
Whatever you do, however, your thought leadership content should contribute to the ongoing dialogue in your field – either adding nuance or taking it in a new direction entirely.
Usually, this will require some “pre-research” to uncover an area where your voice can make the most meaningful addition. Industry periodicals, websites, and – perhaps most importantly – the expert opinions of your company’s top decision makers will all factor in here.
2. Consider Your Release Schedule.
For thought leadership content to make the biggest impact, it shouldn’t simply be released on your blog any old time. Ideally, you’ll be able to leverage outside events to focus significant industry attention on your informative new release.
It might seem strange to be thinking about the calendar before you even embark on developing your content ... but it can actually help in a variety of ways.
When you have a specific target event in mind, you’ll be able to develop a complete schedule for researching, building, designing, and editing your content. Milestones can be assigned hard dates, essential in an iterative process where each step depends on the previous ones.
You’ll be better able to resist the temptation to get lost in any particular step in the process.
Plus, you’ll be able to lay the groundwork for fresh thought leadership content to make the biggest splash. That may mean booking time to speak at an industry conference or even planning a gathering of your own. It may mean reaching out to media outlets.
It should certainly include a concerted launch effort on social media and your subscriber list.
All these things take time, so defining your parameters first will make a big difference.
3. Assign Roles to Your Team.
Depending on the size of your team, your thought leadership creation process could involve a lot of moving parts. You need at least a few key roles filled during the content creation process.
Some roles you want to assign to people might include:
- Writers – Obviously, you want a team of awesome writers to share information in a compelling way.
- Editors – You want fresh eyes on the content your writers are creating. If writers are also taking on editing duty, make sure they have some time to step away from the content before rereading it.
- Designer – Depending on the level of complexity your thought leadership content will be, a designer can help design the new report, whitepaper, ebook, or whatever other content format you choose.
- Community manager – This person oversees the promotional side of the content, helping distribute it through PR, SEO, and more while also overseeing social media campaigns and engaging with your brand’s community.
- Analyst – You need someone to measure the impact your thought leadership content has on your industry so you can fully understand how well it performed and adjust your content creation strategy based on analytics reports.
4. Do Your Research.
Most thought leadership content is built on original research that comes directly from the issuing organization. This research, in and of itself, is part of what makes the resulting presentation unique: It creates new bedrock facts that others are obliged to take into account and respond to.
Of course, there are many ways to do research. Quantitative research is what most people think of first in the age of big data: It is based upon objective measurements using mathematical or statistical approaches. If you have vast amounts of data at your fingertips, this is the way to go.
It is not the only way, of course.
There’s also qualitative research, which can explore the reasoning, opinions, and motivations of a target group. For example, polls and focus groups conducted with potential customers are all qualitative artifacts, but they’re no less valuable when they’re used in compelling ways.
Original research is the “secret sauce” for thought leadership content, but there are drawbacks:
- Conducting research is a daunting, time consuming task not everyone can do in-house.
- Data and underlying assumptions will age, so the resulting content isn’t “evergreen.”
These are two reasons why, in contrast to “average” web content, thought leadership content tends to be cyclical. It takes a while to define, process, introduce, and exploit a big idea. Then, as the novelty wears off, it’s just as vital to move forward to the next frontier quickly.
If your enterprise simply can’t do the research, it doesn’t mean you’re locked out of the thought leadership game. Many established enterprises turn to third-party researchers to investigate emerging issues and trends, then build out the data into a cohesive end product.
5. Determine the Best Way to Bring the Data to Life.
Raw data can sometimes have its own beauty, but it’s rarely conventionally “interesting.”
The huge popularity of infographics goes to show that people are most excited by data when they can look at it from an unexpected perspective. With the right principles in mind, data can be intuitive, intriguing, and instructive. In many cases, it can even be fun.
Bringing the story out of the data comes down to two interrelated decision points:
1. Thought leadership can utilize any format regular content uses. It can come in the form of a series of blog posts, videos, a virtual event, an ebook, and much more. The format chosen should help simplify and streamline the overall narrative that you want to explore with the data.
2. It should also inform and support your voice – your method of imbuing the content with your brand’s unique imprint. For example, many companies have released thought leadership pieces anchored by an interview with their CEO or other leading decision maker. Others have used “behind the scenes” footage of teams in action, often with briefer leadership commentary.
In both these cases, top stakeholders define the company voice by actually, well, speaking. That said, thought leadership does not have to be structured as a conventional discussion or dialogue. Although some of the best thought leadership content is multimedia, the majority takes a somewhat conservative approach as a long-form report or whitepaper.
6. Develop and Launch Your Thought Leadership Piece.
Depending on the size and scope of the expected piece, writing (or filming, designing, or all three) could take anywhere from weeks to months.
No matter your choice, it’s crucial to give your team enough time to not only produce the content, but test and fact-check it. When thought leadership is positioned and launched correctly, it gets a lot more attention than the average post – putting your best foot forward is essential.
Likewise, dedicating social media and digital marketing assets is key. Since thought leadership is usually time sensitive, you should think about it the same way you would a new product or service launch – building up anticipation well in advance, leading to a “launch event.”
The best thought leadership content gets responses – often very quickly.
Prepare accordingly by ensuring a branded hashtag is associated with the piece and that the social media team is watching it closely.
A member of the content team should be designated to either make replies or, if the “respondent of record” is a company executive, help compile the online responses so that follow-up can be focused and effective.
Thought leadership is simply a different game from the average short-form blog post or video. Luckily, all the skills you learn developing that “day to day” content can be applied to thought leadership as well. With practice and experience, it may be possible to release a major thought leadership contribution once per quarter.
Of course, the tempo will depend somewhat on events and evolution in your industry.
Whatever the case, the message is clear. Thought leadership shouldn’t be your entire content strategy, but it is an essential piece of the puzzle. Deep, insightful content of this kind can help you steer and even reframe industry discussions on terms that support your market leadership.
Editor’s Note: This post was originally published in February 2018. It was updated in December 2018 for accuracy and comprehensiveness.